Seen it all before

“The Nativity Story”New Line CinemaDirected by Catherine HardwickeWritten by Mike RichStarring: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Oscar Isaac, Ciaran Hinds, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Stanley Townsend and Alexander SiddigRated PG/101 minutesOpens Dec. 1, 2006Three out of four stars

One thing’s for sure: Nobody’s going to leave the theater after watching Catherine Hardwicke’s “The Nativity Story” grumbling, “That is NOT what I expected.” The movie delivers exactly what the title promises. We get Mary and Joseph, King Herod, the three wise men, a shining star, no room at the inn and cud-chewing oxen who witness the humble birth of Jesus as if human beings rush into their stable and have babies every night.

For me, the definitive nativity story will always be the 1987 Will Vinton TV special “A Claymation Christmas Celebration,” in which the three wise men sing “We Three Kings” on the backs of their bebopping camels (the segment is introduced by a blue, wassail-drunk triceratops-oh, and the California Raisins make a cameo).

I don’t mean to mock the birth of Jesus Christ; I just mean to point out the fact that many of us already hold a version of the nativity story near and dear to our hearts (or at least know it), so what’s the point of throwing one more version on the pile?

This newest retelling is noteworthy for its period authenticity-the cast members, supposedly, were put through a boot camp of sorts, teaching them how to work and live like people did 2,000 years ago, which must have been a bucket of fun-and for Keisha Castle-Hughes (Oscar-nominated in 2003 for “Whale Rider”), who plays a meek, magnificent, age-appropriate Mary.

That gritty realism (a term usually reserved for shaky-cam cop shows, but put to good use in Bible times by gritty realist Hardwicke, who previously directed the harrowing teen tale “Thirteen”) makes “The Nativity Story” worthwhile, if not particularly surprising. It’s also fun to see Ciaran Hinds (so good in Steven Spielberg’s “Munich”) as the vile King Herod, who sees the coming of the King of Kings as a threat to his rule. The scenes in which he and his son Antipas (Alessandro Giuggioli) stand in their tower and plot the massacre of the sons of David achieve a sort of scripted, bad guy seriousness, like Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin plotting the death of the rebel forces. They’re entertaining, but kind of dopey in comparison with the more natural scenes between Mary and Joseph (Oscar Isaac), whose relationship is built on quiet moments, like when she scrubs his sore feet while on their long journey to Bethlehem.

That long journey takes us exactly where we expect it to, and Mary and Joseph and the three wise men converge under the Star of Bethlehem also like we expect them to, which isn’t so much disappointing, as just…well, expected.

“OK, everyone, I’ve gathered food for tonight’s supper. Oh, but Aman, you mayn’t eat-I hate you.” Keisha Castle-Hughes divvies out a meal in “The Nativity Story.”